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Who was tougher, Roman legionary or a modern spec ops soldier

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 10/15/2013 Category: People
Updated: 4 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 4,817 times Debate No: 38905
Debate Rounds (3)
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Roman legionary vs todays modern soldier: who is tougher, who would win in a fight? I will be arguing for the Roman soldier, opponent will be for the modern man.

First Round: acceptance, argue against Roman
Second Round:Rebuttal
Third Round:Second rebuttal
Good luck, votes are on, 8000 char. Limit.


I accept your challenge and argue against Roman Legionnaires thus:

Roman Legionnaires were conscripted from every walk of life - from former slaves to convicted prisoners, including several different types of so called non - CIVI ROMANI, i.e. we now call them Barbarians. While it could be argued that people back then had a tougher life than we have now, to then make the extrapolation that the average Roman soldier would then necessarily have to be tougher as well is nonsense, especially when viewed against our current methodology of selecting our elite soldiers.

Back in Roman times, the Legionnaires simply were selected from the existing pool of all comers. Granted that they had to survive hardships that we take for granted today, but let's be clear here: They were average people of their time. There was no selection process other than survival, and their training often encompassed nothing more than basic fighting skills and weapons, plus hundreds of hours of discipline training (marching, responding to orders, etc).

Contrast this to today's elite special forces soldiers: Volunteers for SF represent less than 1% of soldiers in combat arms - historically that number has been staying at about that level since WWII. Furthermore, they are put through grueling selection courses just to get into the programs - according to various sources I found the average attrition rate is ~70%, meaning that only 30% make it into the training phase. After this, another 10% (from the same sources) fail to complete the training required to be full-fledged SF soldiers.

Modern SF soldiers aren't just tough: They're also smart. They are taught over 500 individual skills plus foreign languages, communications, and survival methods. In most special forces, teams become specialized for particular missions or regional warfare - arctic or desert, for example - rather than be generalists that are taught just basic fighting skills. In many SWU's (Special Warfare Units), individual contribution, quick tactical thinking, and decision making are highly valued skills that are carefully honed over many years. This is one of the main reasons why SFO's (Special Forces Operators) are rarely involved in mass casualties - they don't die by the hundreds or thousands like Roman soldiers used to. Instead they operate in much smaller units, carry massive firepower and sophisticated communications systems, and perform surgical missions deep behind enemy lines and in regions that are often difficult to control.

Contrast that to the Roman soldier: While they had an admirable history for most of their existence, they were known mostly for dying en masse during combat. In the latter stages of Roman history, it seems that every barbarian invader armed with a club and some pelt shield had their way with them simply by being more enraged and doped up than their Roman counterparts (the Bezerkers, for example). Their key strength wasn't the individual toughness - it was the fact that they acted as ONE COHESIVE UNIT using Roman manipular formations, a central command and control structure complete with battlefield communications, and standardized unit techniques like the testudo formation. All of these factors plus their ability to quickly engineer defensive fortifications, bridges, large ballistic weapons and siege machines all conspired to make them very successful in battle against enemies that often lacked cohesion, basic communications and control, not to mention any kind of concentrated military objectives. None of this speaks to the "toughness" of the average Roman soldier.

Lastly - given the fact that modern soldiers are trained through scientific methods that have been honed through "trial by fire" over the past 150 years, it is patently clear that SWU have the upper hand - they are taught many hand-to-hand and knife-to-knife combat skills that the average Roman soldier simply never saw. The Roman soldier was primarily concerned with acting as a member of a cohesive unit, to act in the interest of the man next to him - thrust his speer into his buddy's opponent while his buddy protected himself with his large shield from that attack.

There are numerous stories of special forces operators from WWII until today that simply defy belief, extreme cases of survival against all odds; Unfortunately no such equivalent survival stories exist for Roman soldiers to display their supposed toughness.
Debate Round No. 1


While it is true Roman Legionaries came from all different walks of life, and were not given near as much training as today's modern SF, it still stands true that those that survived the first few battles became formidable foes. The reason the Roman Empire was on the top of the world is because of the Roman Army. They knew how to fight, and how to do it well. I also believe that most of them were in top physical condition, which our modern SF operators also are. Julius Ceasor marched his men 20 miles a day, who were weighed down with a shield, gladius, pila, and a pack, as well as armor, at the end of which they would build fortifications before sitting down to a simple, small meal. The next morning they would wake up and do it all over again. When they faced an enemy, they would fight for hours at a time, with only temporary lulls in battle. With stamina and strength to complete this, I believe they made up in physical condition and experience in hand-to-hand combat compared to a SF operator's wits and fighting ability. They may not have been as good, technically, against a SF operator, but they had the know-how.

SF soldiers are very smart, and are trained in many different skills. However, I believe that many of these skills are oriented to things such as stealth, survival training, modern tactics such as explosives and firearms, and electronics, most of which would be irrelevant in a standup fight against a Roman Legionary. While it is true that SF operators are formidable hand-to-hand combatants, I don't believe that their knowledge of many different moves is a huge advantage against a veteran Legionary. Legionaries did fight more as a team then individually, but so do SF teams. In fact, that is one of the reasons (in my opinion) that they are so deadly; acting as a team and each doing their part in a mission fluidly and efficiently, as well as watching their buddy's back. Legionaries also fought as team, which is what made them so successful: The testudo formation, their charges, fighting as one cohesive unit rather other armies such as barbarian tribes, who tended to throw themselves headfirst into the fight. The Legionaries where also highly disciplined, and it took a lot to route a unit. It is true that the Romans lost thousands of men in battles, but their battles consisted of many thousands of soldiers, and if you look at the Roman Army's track record, it is quite impressive. Modern SF don't lose thousands of men because they work in tiny groups, doing more black ops missions then head on combat.

Back to a one-on-one fight however, I believe that an experienced Legionary would know how to handle himself quite well against a modern SF. A Roman soldier was dedicated to 20 years of service, with an additional five as reserve. That is quite a long time. And they were usually on campaign for years at a time, fighting, sieging, and marching. Fifteen years in, a Legionary would be quite capable of handling himself. An SF operator will know a wider array of moves, but the Legionary has the experience of charging into battle countless times, and each time killing as many people as he could with a short sword. Tips and new moves were also handed down from veterans, and even in training, they were drilled constantly on core moves and then sparred with each other, one on one. I am sure, even in battle, at times it was every man for himself.

So while today's SF are a very special kind of soldier, and some of the best we have in the world today, I believe that a Roman Legionary's extensive experience in hand-to-hand combat would easily prove a match, as well as both of their top physical conditions, which I believe would also benefit the Roman more, as he would have experiences of ancient battles that the modern SF soldier has never encountered.


My opponent appears to make some good arguments, but unfortunately they are not based on facts but rather just a set of hollywood perceptions.

Fact #1: During Roman times, the average life expectancy was in the 20's-30's. Most died in childhood, and only a select few survived into their 50's. Weather, starvation, and disease were all major contributors to early mortality. Everyone, rich or poor, suffered during the winter months.

Fact #2: Our modern diet is richer in protein. We consume more meats than we have even just 100 short years ago. Romans and Legionnaires all had much lower levels of protein intake. In fact, we have gained as much as 4 inches in average height since the middle of the 19th century alone (Source: The average Roman soldier (from ~500 BC to 500 AD) was somewhere between 5' and 5'6" in height depending mostly on what region he was born in, and whether or not he suffered a famine during his formative years. In terms of sheer physical size, the average Roman is approximately the size and stature of the average 16 year old today, and weighed approx 140-150 lbs. There is a well documented study of over 100,000 soldiers in WWI where the average weight was less than 145 lbs (144.9 lbs, exactly)?!?

Fact #3: The average modern US soldier physically is approximately 5'9.5" and weighs approximately 175 lbs according to a 1984 (unknown source) and 2004 study conducted by DARPA. The 1984 figure did not have weights.

Fact #4: The most important determinant in a close-combat situation is physical size. An extreme example of this would be a 120 lbs fighter going against a 220 lbs fighter. Obviously, the larger fighter would have a tremendous advantage. This is precisely why there are weight classes in boxing, wrestling, and mixed martial arts - the larger fighters would have an unfair advantage.

Based on just the physical differences that exist between ancient Romans and modern people, the fact that Romans had to survive winter famines throughout their childhood, not to mention the occasional famine, I honestly do not believe that a modern SFO would have any trouble at all with the physical aspects of fighting against a Legionnaire.

Furthermore, let's not forget the value in standardized training. Today, all our soldiers are taught basic fighting skills. SFO's are taught not only basic skills, but often very advanced techniques plus they are often trained to become trainers themselves (US Army SFO's, for example, are considered "trainer operators"). Not only are they experts in their crafts and techniques, but they are able to teach their abilities to others, including foreign people with limited language skills and technical proficiency.

My opponent makes an interesting point: "Roman soldiers that survive several battles".... Every modern SFO is expected to not only survive "a few battles", but to win them, and to retire a few years later. I think this alone speaks volumes about the difference between SFO, who are hand-picked from the ranks of volunteer soldiers, honed over several years through well designed, evolving training, and then released into units with vast combat experience and fighting skill.

Compare this to the Roman soldier, who essentially was not much more than a cog in the Roman war machine, who ended up in the Army because of reasons other than volunteering.

Based on my careful analysis of physical size and training standards alone do I believe that my case is much stronger for the idea that modern SFO's are better, tougher fighters than Roman Legionnaires.
Debate Round No. 2


The arguments made in the previous debate are valid, but I disagree with my opponent's view that my opinions are based off of hollywood perceptions. If I were arguing that the Spartans were just as good as they appeared to be from the movie 300, that would make sense, but I am making an argument based on historical fact. In fact, until Gaius Marius implemeted vast changes in the Roman Army, the rules for getting into the army were much stricter. He implemented his new system which allowed many more men to join, thus giving the Romans a bigger army.

I do not believe that Legionaries were supermen, which is how Hollywood portrays them. I also know Hollywood portrays SF operators as incredible fighters, taking down dozens of men with a couple of well placed blows and shots. I do believe however, that both groups were and are the best at what they were trained to do.

A Roman's life expectancy was not as long as ours, that is true, but there were quite a few veterans of war. The Romans would go on campaign for years and many of them would survive it. It is true that they made mistakes, some of which have gone down in history (Battle of Teutoburg Forest, for instance, where the whole 9th Legion was annihalated in an ambush) but for the most part they handled themselves well.
Physical size is a important factor in a fight, but it isn't everything. Skill and experience, as well as instinct play crucial roles as well. The Romans fought well against the Germanic tribes on open field, who usually were bigger and stronger in size then the average Roman soldier (up to six inches taller and they did have problems adapting to forest warfare against the barbarians). They respected these men and did not enjoy going into battle against them, but they could usually beat them in a head to head confrontation.

SF operators are quite good at hand to hand combat, but I still stand by my agument that the Romans had much more experience and know how on their side. SF operators are skilled enough to teach others, but I'm sure Romans passed down their knowledge just the same, even to others that did not understand the language; you don't have to understand someone else's language to teach them how to fight, you can just show them.

Roman Legionaries volunteered as well, not all the time, but many of them, especially the poorer classes, would enlist because of the benefits of serving the Empire. They would receive training, and then the better ones might be moved into more elite units. Look at the Praetorian Cohort, for example. They were literally the SF of their times; the personal guard for generals and other important figures. And they weren't like the Secret Service, which are good but not always very good; they were some of the best fighters in the world at the time. So I do not believe that the Romans were just ordinary soldiers with mediocre results; their conquest of much of the known world at the time can attest to that. In fact Roman legions were considered elite infantry for most of the Roman Imperial age, recruits coming only from citizens that had graduated honorably from auxilia ( After Gaius Marius made changes, that did change but Roman soldiers were still considered the best in the world.

Lastly, the brutality of ancient warfare is something I think even a SF would be unprepared for. I'm not saying that war today isn't horrible, but the modern soldier is becoming more distanced from the battlefield, with guns and modern technology. Romans didn't have the Geneva Convention, and they slaughtered with impunity. They had no qualms about killing innocent civilians, including children and women. I am not sure the modern soldier would do that without hesitation, even most SFO's. Even the punishments were harsh, including being beat to death for desertion by your fellow comrades. These men were brutal, and they would fight to the death.

I thank my oponent for the spirited debate, however I feel that my case presents a better argument.


My esteemed opponent makes some good points regarding the toughness of some elite Roman soldiers. Let's examine the toughness of the elite of the elite SF soldiers for a minute:

Navy Seals, for example. What many people fail to realize about Seal Training (especially hell week and BUD/S) is that it is specifically designed to weed out operators that don't have the physical ability to survive hours in cold water. As it turns out, there really is no way to train for this - it's entirely genetic. Some people have that ability, others simply lack it. Please view the video, first aired on NatGeo, for an explanation of my argument.

In most SF units, just to get the privilege of beginning training, future candidates must endure 5-14 days of introductory training. Often this is called "hell week" or "selection course" in which the object is to reduce the number of eligible candidates to the ones most able to perform the necessary future training.

The Roman legions had no such selection course. They took everyone that made it - either through political means, connections, or through luck and court ordered recruitment (i.e. convicts).
This point alone should cause anyone reading this debate pause for thought. On one hand, SF operators are put through a rigorous selection course just to be able to show up to training. They then need another 6-18 months to become full fledged, fully trained SF operators ready to join operational units. None of this is true for any part of Roman legionnaires. They showed up, bought some armor and weapons, and basically survived. Perhaps some were more adapt at their job than others, perhaps some even were hand-picked for certain duties and some more prestigious posts. But in the end, even that was mostly based on something other than individual accomplishment - they were picked by someone else in charge. They may even have been picked using nothing more than political favors. In fact, there is a great deal of data that shows that many had family histories in certain particular units, especially in the later parts of Roman history, when many units were entirely manned by Barbarians or a mix of non-Romans and Romans.

None of this points to the "toughness" of Roman soldiers, unfortunately. I fear that the premise my opponent continues to use is really nothing more than a combination of the "fog of history" and a string of historically inaccurate hollywood movies.

In conclusion, I do want to thank my esteemed opponent to this lively debate, one which I personally found interesting and educational. I have spent several hours reading up on both SF and Roman history, and even if my side loses the debate, I will still consider it to have been a worthwhile endeavor - and I wholeheartedly thank PRO for coming up with this subject matter: Thank you.
Debate Round No. 3
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